Honor thy mother: good advice for a family
My mother, who launched a career as a church organist long before she began her family, started planning her funeral seven years ago. She was approaching 90, and she wanted to pin down the details while she still had all her faculties.
That turned out to be good thinking because she did eventually slip into the forgetful chasms of dementia before dying Nov. 21 at age 96. And she didn’t realize at the beginning of the process that what she wouldn’t have was all of the dear friends she expected to participate in the service – she outlived some of them.
That was Mary Eleanor “Casey” Jones Pickle, a lifelong procrastinator. She kept putting off dying while her younger friends made their exits.
When the pandemic started last year and public gatherings ended, she found it hilarious that she’d spent five or so years planning a service that now couldn’t be held. Anytime she’d talk about it, she would chuckle. She was sure she’d die before the pandemic ended, and she didn’t want friends endangering their health by coming to pay their respects to her, so she told me she wanted only a small family gathering at the cemetery. (“Small” in our family would mean at least 30 people.)
I would nod in assent, but I just couldn’t envision Mom going quietly. That wasn’t her way.
In the years B.C. (Before Covid), she and I used to joke that she’d be late for her own funeral. As it turned out, she was on time, but I showed up for the visitation at 12:30 on Sunday instead of at 12:15 as I’d planned. As I walked into the church, I looked up and said, “This one’s for you, Mom.”
I wore a mask, of course, though few others did. It was shocking to be in public again – Mom and I lived such a secluded life together. But the visitation was heartwarming. I lost track of the number of people who came up to me and bragged that Mom had played for their wedding. Many of her organist buddies extolled her talents, and friends of my siblings and me from throughout our lives shared reminiscences and hugs.
Mom filled countless legal pads and sticky notes during her planning. She scoured through different versions of the Bible and various hymnals and sheet music and wrote down ideas for scriptures and songs she wanted at the funeral. A professional church organist for more than 70 years, Mom rivaled most preachers for the number of funerals she’d worked.
Mom didn’t want a celebration of her life; she emphasized that there was to be no eulogy. She wanted her sendoff to be a true worship service, the conflux of her faith and her service to God.
She had two main accomplices while she was constructing the service. She turned to Bob Hall, a beloved family friend and retired director of the Baptist Collegiate Ministry at the University of Tennessee, and former First Baptist Church music minister Eugene Hattaway, with whom she had worked for 25 years. She would mail them drafts through the years, and they helped her trim her ambitious service down to a reasonable length.
When two of my older brothers and I sat down at the funeral home last week to finalize arrangements, I was poised for battle. I knew they wanted tributes to Mom included in the service. I wanted what she’d said she wanted. But it dawned on me that what she would’ve wanted most was for us not to argue.
My oldest brother, Mac, wanted to speak briefly, and he did, prompting more than a few tears among the mourners. Other memories were worked into the service along the way. Mom got what she wanted: a blend of worshipful music and an outline for a Christian life through scripture, but there was also an appreciative acknowledgement of all the ways she had served the church and the community. The love in the sanctuary was palpable.
Afterward, people told me it was the most beautiful funeral service they’d ever attended. I didn’t disagree. All my brothers and I were pleased with the final “final draft” – and with Mom’s final act of bringing us together for a much-needed reunion as a family.
Betsy Pickle is a veteran reporter and editor who occasionally likes to share her opinions with KnoxTNToday readers.